SACRAMENTO—Giving in to political reality, the Legislature’s chief backers of bilingual education on Thursday abandoned their effort to revive the statewide program, fearing they otherwise might endanger special education programs whose future had become intertwined with bilingual instruction.
Top Democrats in both houses of the Legislature refused to characterize their move as a defeat. But Assembly Speaker Willie Brown, one of the chief forces behind bilingual education, said in a statement released by his office that “this is a sad day.”
The announcement, the Speaker said, means California is no longer “pursuing a legislative solution to educating those students who need to develop proficiency in the English language.”
School districts still must provide instruction in students’ native languages under less stringent federal law and court rulings that require special assistance for pupils not fluent in English. Most districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have continued to operate bilingual programs.
California’s stricter guidelines, however, expired last year and Gov. George Deukmejian, arguing that the program ought to be left up to control of local school districts, vetoed legislation that would have revived it.
Hoping to renew pressure on Deukmejian and reluctant Republican lawmakers, Democrats in the Legislature had placed the state bilingual requirements in legislation that also would extend the lives of six so-called categorical education programs that are set to expire later this month. But on Thursday, these lawmakers stripped the bilingual provision from the bill, saying they fear that Deukmejian and his Republican allies in the Legislature would move to scuttle the entire package.
“Why should we hold up these other special programs for just this one category?” Assemblywoman Theresa Hughes, who chairs the Education Committee, asked at a press conference.
The programs facing extinction include special education for handicapped students; the Gifted and Talented Education program known as GATE; Indian Early Childhood Education, the School Improvement Program that provides school planning grants; Economic Impact Aid for inner-city schools and the Miller-Unruh reading program that provides money for districts with economically disadvantaged children.
The removal of bilingual education from the legislative package will not, however, assure the future of these categorical programs since Deukmejian in the past has shown little reluctance to scrap them as well.
Deukmejian has called for elimination of some of the categorical programs and last year proposed that several be scrapped in a trade-off for smaller class sizes in first and second grades. He later abandoned the proposal in the face of strong opposition from the educational community.
On Thursday, a spokeswoman described Deukmejian as delighted that the bilingual provision was stripped from the bill, but said the governor is withholding judgment on the categorical programs until the Legislature acts. The bill requires a two-thirds vote of both houses for passage.
“We haven’t seen the actual package so we haven’t taken a position, but we will be looking at it,” said Donna Lucas, Deukmejian’s deputy press secretary.
Peter Mehas, Deukmejian’s education adviser, said the decision to remove bilingual education from the other programs was a step forward. But he indicated that the governor still may have problems with the legislation because the remaining programs are part of a package and cannot be dealt with individually.
The Administration privately favors continuation of the gifted and special education programs but is skeptical about retaining several others that are viewed as antiquated and geared toward Democratic-dominated inner-city areas.
Moreover, expiration of the categorical programs will not take money from the schools but merely eliminate requirements for how it is spent. That is an approach generally favored by the Republican governor.
But Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles), whose district contains a large proportion of new immigrants from Spanish-language countries, argued that stripping bilingual instruction from the education bill takes away Deukmejian’s strongest argument for vetoing the legislation.
“This will allow the Administration to really show its colors,” Polanco said.
In announcing the agreement Thursday, several advocates of bilingual education acknowledged that expiration of the state requirements did not prompt many school districts to abandon or reduce the scope of their non-English instruction. In some cases, they said, the programs were improved — a result that had long been predicted by Deukmejian and some Republican lawmakers.
“The (bilingual education) veto might be a blessing in disguise,” said Chuck Acosta, who represents an association of bilingual program coordinators in Los Angeles County.